A visit to the doctor probably isn't going to make anyone's top 10 list of enjoyable activities. But physicians should still try to ensure that the encounter is as agreeable and convenient as possible.

Along with goodwill, real money is at stake: Medicare pay-for-performance programs incorporate patient satisfaction scores when calculating provider incentive payments. Commercial payers likewise are introducing contracts that take quality and patient satisfaction results into account.

There’s another important reason why keeping customers satisfied should be a priority. New care delivery options designed around customer convenience – most notably retail walk-in clinics -- pose a genuine competitive threat to practices that take patient satisfaction for granted.

"The reality is that the traditional physician group isn't the only game in town anymore," said Steven Stout, McKesson's vice president for ACO Operations. "That means patients can vote with their feet if they believe care is easier to obtain elsewhere, or if they feel their doctor or practice is indifferent to their realities or concerns."

Experts say that developing an effective patient satisfaction strategy should involve broad solutions for enhancing patient interaction and communication, as well as techniques aimed at improving the encounter itself.

Greater Transparency

The Cleveland Clinic has embraced an approach that focuses heavily on improved communication and information sharing, according to a recent article in Healthcare IT News: Five key elements of the clinic’s strategy include:1

  • Open access scheduling: David Levin, MD, chief medical information officer at the clinic, told Healthcare IT News that an early priority for the clinic was to make it simpler for patients to see their physicians. As a result, patients can now log on through a patient portal, view their doctor’s schedule, and then make their own appointments at all of the clinic’s family health centers.
  • Patient education: Ensuring that “patients understand what’s going on with them, as well as what’s supposed to happen next” is crucial to keeping patients both satisfied and engaged in their own care, Levin said. The clinic helps foster this awareness with a range of on-line educational materials. 
  • Open medical records policy: Because transparency helps engender trust and goodwill, the clinic has made personal health records available to patients online. This includes the full electronic heath record, with documents like after-visit summaries, medication lists, allergies, immunization records, lab results, x-ray reports and physician notes.
  • Two-way messaging via patient portals: The clinic is communicating with patients via email and other electronic formats, both to help providers coach patients, and to reduce or eliminate unnecessary office visits. 
  • Patient-reported outcomes: The organization also is exploring ways for patients to enter data into their own records. The information would become part of the clinical workflow and allow physicians to track patient progress between visits and modify care if necessary.

A Better Bedside Manner

As important as these strategies are, it is arguably the patient’s relationship with, and perception of, their physician that carries the most weight when it comes to increasing patient satisfaction.

Sue Larsen, president of Astute Doctor Education Inc., recently offered a list of ways physicians can improve the encounter on physicianspractice.com. Larsen’s company specializes in developing online educational resources to help physicians boost their interpersonal skills. Among her suggestions:2

Provide information that is easy to understand. Avoid information overload. Use direct and specific language, and offer event-based and location-based instructions, such as "take your antibiotics before breakfast and dinner” and “apply the medication in the bathroom, immediately after your morning shower."3

Show patients that you respect their opinions and that you have heard them. “A small investment of just 90 seconds is generally enough time for patients to share their perceptions of the illness, their feelings and expectations,” Larsen wrote.4

Create the perception of adequate time. "Physicians face enormous time pressures, and talk-time is at a premium. However, omitting pleasantries is a false economy, as a hurried patient may withhold crucial information necessary for clinical care. Therefore, don’t appear rushed."5

Involve the patient in the decision-making process. Give them a choice. Share your rationale. Encourage patient contributions.

Remember that small things can make a difference. Provide a good introduction. Acknowledge a patient’s wait time. Use humor. Be empathetic. Understand the patient’s experience and perspective.

"Consider the patient’s interests, work and hobbies, as well as the patient’s condition, experiences with it, ideas about it and feelings toward it," Larsen wrote. "This will show respect, foster an open dialog and enable you to device treatment strategies the patient is more likely to commit to achieving."6

Changing Times

McKesson’s Stout noted that in the emerging era of accountable care and value-based reimbursement contracts with payers, patient satisfaction has become an important variable for achieving optimal clinical and financial results.

“Physicians and their staff who relate well to patients’ needs and concerns stand to benefit through higher performance scores, enhanced reputations, greater patient retention and increased medical practice revenue," he said.

1Jeff Rowe, “5 ways Cleveland Clinic improved its patient engagement strategies,” Healthcare IT News, Oct. 1, 2013.
2Sue Larsen, “Seven Ways to Improve Patient Satisfaction Survey Scores,” Physicianpractice.com, July 18, 2014.
3Ibid.
4Ibid.
5Ibid.
6Ibid.

McKesson

About the author

McKesson Business Performance Services offers services and consulting to help hospitals, health systems, and physician practices improve business performance, boost margins and transition successfully to value-based care.